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10-30-07, 01:09 PM
Thursday, Oct. 25, 2007
Tattoo Bans
By Carolyn Sayre

There are two things Ed Soares is devoted to. One is his job as a detective for the East Palo Alto, Calif., police department, where he has worked for five years. The other is a large garish tattoo of St. Michael casting the devil into hell that adorns his forearm. The image is a work in progress, and Soares, 33, has spent three years and $5,000 getting it just the way he wants it. So he faced something of a test of allegiances this summer when the department forbade all its officers from displaying tattoos on the job. "It is not fair. I have spent a lot of time and money on my tattoos," says Soares. "But I am in the business of taking orders, so that is what I will do."

East Palo Alto's prohibition may seem like a quirky, isolated incident but in fact is a sign of the times. Over the past six months, tattoo restrictions have been imposed on at least a dozen police departments around the country, and the Marine Corps placed a ban on "excessive body art" for new recruits on April 1. Oddly, the crackdown is occurring at a time when large, excessive tattoos are more popular than ever. Last year a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 89% of the men and 48% of the women who wear tattoos have conspicuous and sometimes outlandish designs on their hands, necks, arms, legs, toes and feet. "We are seeing more tattoos than ever before," says Ronald Davis, chief of police at East Palo Alto, where officers are required to hide their ink with clothing or bandages.

Since the Stone Age, tattooing has been seen as a spiritual ritual, used to mark a right of passage. During the Civil War, getting a flag emblazoned on the arm emerged as a patriotic symbol for soldiers. But in the past few years, the garish body-art trend has taken on an increasingly negative connotation as it has become a signifying mark of street gangs and prison inmates.

The East Palo Alto ban was sparked by community complaints about a group of officers, known as the "Wolf Pack," who wore tattoos of the animal. "The uniform needs to reek of professionalism," says Larry Harmel, executive director of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association. Several departments in his state have already initiated bans. "People can draw negative conclusions by looking at big, bold tattoos."

Few organizations are more committed to the image of professionalism than the Marine Corps. "Marines hold themselves to a higher standard than everyone else," says Sergeant Major Carlton Kent. Although new recruits can't enter the service with sleeves, as large inked designs are often called, Marines already in the Corps can keep the body art they have. But a commanding officer must document those tattoos to make sure nothing is added. "My tattoos express who I am," says Sergeant Adam Esquivel, a Marine serving at Camp Pendleton, near Oceanside, Calif. But he's resolved to follow the new order. "I chose to be a Marine. So I have to take the good with the bad."

But does it makes sense for the Corps to take such a stiff stand on an aesthetic issue at a time when the nation is at war and it's already tough enough to persuade young people to enlist in the military? Marine officials claim the new policy isn't hurting recruitment. But it is telling that last year the Army relaxed a similar tattoo policy to help bolster its numbers. There are no statistics indicating what effect the bans have had on law-enforcement hiring, but there is evidence that cops aren't happy. A few months ago, the police-officers union in Anne Arundel County, Md., filed a grievance against the department. So far the courts have been staunchly antitattoo. Last year a federal appeals court in Hartford, Conn., upheld a ruling that required officers to cover up spiderweb tattoos--a symbol of white supremacy--setting a precedent that such ordinances do not violate the First Amendment.

But departments like East Palo Alto are banning not just tats that are racially offensive--they are prohibiting them all. "Tattoos are an icebreaker," says Soares, who thinks society is generally accepting of tattoos. "Civilians know we are normal people, not robots."